On Saturday I began an eight day preached retreat for about 30 elderly Jesuits, members of the St. Camillus Jesuit Community in Wauwatosa, WI. Our retreat ends on Holy Saturday and during the course of the week I'm giving two brief presentations on themes of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
Since every Jesuit makes the full thirty Exercises twice in his life and an annual eight day retreat, some of these men have been making the Spiritual Exercises longer than I've been alive. What could they possibly learn?
Actually, making the Exercises, like reading the Sacred Scriptures, is not so much a matter of acquiring information as being formed. With the help of the Holy Spirit at work through the Exercises and the Scriptures, we come to a greater self-knowledge and knowledge of God. We may think we know ourselves or God pretty well, but there's always more to learn. That's the nature of love, the nature of a relationship. On this side of eternity we can never say that we've arrived and are no longer growing. Just as physical and mental exercises are important for us no matter how old we are, so too are spiritual exercises.
I think the bottom line of the Spiritual Exercises, as well as the entire spiritual life, can be summed up in a quote from an early Church Father named Diadochus of Photice. This quote appears in both the Roman Breviary and the Philokalia, an essential spiritual book of Eastern Christians. Here's the quote:
"The measure of our love for God depends upon how deeply aware we are of God's love for us."
This is what our lives are all about: growing in our relationship and union with God. From this loving union our love for ourselves and for our neighbor flows. We cannot give what we do not have. This truth is why St. John wrote in his First Letter:
"In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another" (4: 10-11).
Holy Week is a perfect time to be making the Spiritual Exercises. During this week the Church calls us to focus on the fullest revelation of God's love. God so loved the world (and each one of us) that he gave his only Son who suffered and died on a cross and rose from the dead. The Spiritual Exercises lead us to reflect on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Appreciating that love more and more, we want to return love for love. That is the ultimate purpose and meaning of human life.